What has consent got to do with child abuse? A simple question, which should have a simple answer. A child under the age of 16 is in law unable to consent to sexual acts. The age of consent exists for a reason: to protect vulnerable members of society who have not yet developed the emotional or physical maturity to engage in sexual relationships.
Yet years of revelations about child sexual abuse have shown that this is not a settled question even within trusted institutions that should know better. The independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham found police officers believed girls as young as 11 could consent to sex. In Rochdale, council employees said they thought victims of child sex abuse were “making their own choices”. And in my own work as a lawyer representing survivors of child sexual abuse, I’ve seen how the Catholic church, when dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse, often looks to place blame straight at the feet of a victim.
Two years ago, the Catholic church was swift to publicly condemn Father Gino Flaim, a priest in northern Italy, who in the context of discussing paedophilia said some children seek attention from priests that they do not receive at home, and some priests give in to this.
But I have received court documents and legal correspondence from the Catholic church’s lawyers that seem to support the idea children can consent to sex. This includes allegations of consent in child abuse cases (where my teenage client had been raped by his family priest, who was in his 60s), a priest who alleged one of my clients was a “child prostitute”, and a priest who felt sexual relations with children caused them no harm.
In my experience of working with survivors, the Catholic church’s views on consent frequently hold survivors back from disclosing their abuse at the hands of priests for decades, if they report at all, as they feel they are to blame for the abuse taking place or for “leading the abuser on”. This simply serves to exacerbate the pain and suffering that they are enduring. For too long, the pope has failed to act on his words that child abusers have no role within the church, as evidenced by the church’s reluctance to unfrock priests for such crimes.
The government also has something to answer for. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA), responsible for awarding compensation to victims of child sex abuse, applies a different test to consent than the legal one: it looks at whether someone has consented to sex “in fact”.
A clear example where the CICA failed a child abuse survivor involved one of my clients who was 15 years old when she was sexually assaulted by her science teacher. Michael Pooley, aged 34 at the time, groomed Beth (not her real name), spending an increasing amount of time with Beth at school and sending her Facebook messages and gifts. After a short period of time, Pooley entered into a sexual “relationship” with Beth when she was still 15.
One of Beth’s friends discovered the “relationship”, and the police became involved. Pooley was subsequently convicted of taking a child without lawful authority and sexual activity with a child. He received a custodial sentence, was put on the sex offender register for 10 years, and barred from working with children indefinitely.
The fact that Beth was only 15 when these assaults took place was ignored by the CICA, which instead deemed her to be a willing participant as she had “in fact” consented to sexual acts even though she could not consent “in law”. As a result, the authority said she was not eligible for financial compensation. The CICA wrote to me stating that children as young as 13 can consent “in fact” even though they cannot consent “in law”.
The idea that children can consent to sexual acts is victim-blaming at its absolute worst. It entirely disregards the depraved acts that are committed by child abusers, and instead wrongly shifts blame and attention to the victim.
The CICA was set up to compensate “blameless victims of violent crime”. I cannot think of anyone who is as blameless as a child who has been groomed and manipulated into sexual activities by someone in a position of authority, power and trust. The government urgently needs to change the CICA’s rules to ensure this injustice stops now.
Child abuse is never the fault of children. They cannot consent – and we need to make sure that everyone knows that the only people to blame for these despicable acts are child abusers and the institutions that protect them.
• Dino Nocivelli is an associate solicitor in the child abuse department at Bolt Burdon Kemp